Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir, by Roz Chast
It can’t be easy, bringing up that dreaded subject with one’s aged parents, the conversation we don’t want to have but know we must have at some point or other. You know the one: Isn’t it time to move to a place where people will watch out for you? How do you want to handle your end-of-life issues? Do you want to talk about granting power of attorney? Do you think it’s time to get rid of some of this stuff? You can phrase it gently or bluntly, but no matter, your parents probably want to discuss these issues less than you do.
Roz Chast as an only child has a particularly formidable task ahead of her, as she deals with her increasingly frail elderly parents, they living in one city, she in another. Best known perhaps as a staff cartoonist for the New Yorker, Chast writes with a self-deprecating humor that is not just refreshing but also a means to lessen the pain of what she experiences. She shares her experiences with us in the form she knows best – the cartoon. Through the graphic novel format, along with hand-written text and some photography, Chast guides us through the complicated, stressful, daunting task before her, with wit, grace, and, believe it or not, a lot of laughs. Well, if we’re laughing, we’re not crying, right?
Her parents, Elizabeth and George, did not have it easy as young children, being descendants of penniless, persecuted immigrants, but their adult lives were firmly in the middle class in Brooklyn, New York, where they raised their one child, Roz. Chast briefly shows us her childhood but uses the bulk of the book to take us on another kind of life journey, the one where she discovers that her gentle father and overbearing mother are getting older and more vulnerable to the frailties of old age. It begins with the presence of grime. That to her is the first sign that the once-meticulous apartment is now the home of two older folks who just aren’t seeing things or caring about things the way they used to see and care. Here Chast confronts her first conundrum. What should she do about this new state of affairs? Clean up after her parents, who clearly are horrified by this effort? Ignore it? The issue becomes more complicated as their health begins to decline in subtle and obvious ways. From poor health to worse health, from living independently to living in a nursing home, from being an autonomous human to being helpless and sick, Chast’s parents go through it all. Again, with humor and wit, Chast takes us along for the cruel and sad ride, and we find laughter at what is otherwise truly distressing. But if you go through this yourself with your own parents, you will find Chast refreshing and on target, not depressing or disrespectful of her parents.
We all know how this story ends – the same way this kind of story in real life always ends, with the older folks leaving, and I don’t mean going to Atlantic City for the weekend. Even so, Roz Chast helps us along by sharing her experiences in this ordeal and letting us know that at the end of it all, you can still have your parents with you in a way, although I’m not sure I’d want my parents’ ashes in a closet in my bedroom. Still, it seems to fit in with the scheme of things in the life of Roz Chast and her folks.
D. L. S.